We have the technology to connect everyone in Africa to the internet, what’s holding back the industry is government policy. That’s the opinion of Dr Bitange Ndemo, honorary chair of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the communications minister who brought undersea internet cables to Kenya.
“The answer to internet access is not in technological innovation,” Ndemo told an audience at The Guardian Activate summit in Johannesburg, “it’s in dry policy.”
Ndemo, a self-confessed policy wonk, says that the challenge facing most African nations is the same as the one that faced the Kenyan government in the early 2000s. The number of people with Internet access was stalled at single figure percentages relative to the population as a whole, and with every passing month the gap between the global internet haves and have-nots was growing. Ndemo says that he found most of his time was spent flying to other countries in order to talk with colleagues in other governments and service providers, but very little action was being taken.
“In five years,” Ndemo jokes, “the cost of all the meetings was probably as great as the cost of laying undersea cables themselves.”
Ndemo explains that the turning point for him was approval from the president to pull out of these meetings and go it alone. It was a calculated risk, he says, but by approaching companies from the Middle East and simultaneously liberalising the telecommunications industry regulations, undersea cables were landed within two years.
Three years later, in 2012, the number of people with access to the internet rose from 10% in 2009 to 37%. Breaking the market monopolies wasn’t easy however.
“Some of us received death threats,” Ndemo admits, “but the effects of liberalising the market was dramatic… Nothing is having as big an effect on fighting poverty as [access to the internet] and apps.”
Ndemo points to Kenyan success stories like iCow, M-PESA and M-SHAMBA as examples of how internet access benefits the very poor and creates the conditions for innovation regardless of overall literacy levels. But access costs – which run to more than 100% of monthly income for fixed access and 35% of income for mobile broadband in countries like Zambia – remain to high for most. Ndemo says this can be changed by encouraging competition, encouraging operators to share infrastructure and using spare bandwidth with TV White Spaces technology.
He also speaks highly of former South African communications minister Yunnis Carrim. Oh dear.